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Consider astronomy. Hobbyists and amateurs are today still able to make small to moderate scientific contributions to their field. Is the same true in chemistry?

I think there might be at least two restricting factors:

  • The equipment needed to make scientific discoveries is far too expensive (e.g. hundreds of thousands of dollars/euros/whatever) for an amateur to obtain
  • Not having a bachelor's + master's degree (so being ready for a PhD) is too limiting ("too much to study alone").

If there is no "correct" answer for the field of chemistry in general, please post an answer per bigger sub-field (e.g. organic chemistry).

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    $\begingroup$ I like the question very much. No reason to close it in my opinion. It could be too broad, but that is no restriction for a short summarizing objective informative and (widely) applicable answer. +1 $\endgroup$
    – Jori
    Jan 16, 2015 at 23:50
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    $\begingroup$ The damn meth cooks have complicated home chemistry. Try explaining the lab in your basement to the cops. $\endgroup$
    – user137
    Jan 17, 2015 at 8:08
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    $\begingroup$ If you consider all the topics that can earn a Chemistry Nobel price, e.g. biochemistry, materials science, there are a lot of unexplored field where tinkers and hackers can have fun and somewhat meaningful projects. $\endgroup$
    – Greg
    Jan 17, 2015 at 16:19
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    $\begingroup$ No wonder why every good question is off-topic on S.E.! Can't we make a few exceptions? $\endgroup$
    – ashu
    Jan 19, 2015 at 4:40
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    $\begingroup$ I think it is a nice question, with a good intent. Does chemistry.SE have the option for a community wiki? $\endgroup$
    – mmh
    Jan 20, 2015 at 21:25

5 Answers 5

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It's conceivable that somewhere out there, someone with a completely fresh point of view could have an annus mirabilis in an area like theoretical chemistry, working with just a paper and pencil (or a laptop) and home-brewed equipment and resources. Yes, for most of us, all of the low-hanging fruit is gone---but for a real giant, the whole tree might be full of low-hanging fruit.

Most of us aren't giants, but as Newton said, we can stand on the shoulders those who are. Doing that requires some ability to search the extant literature, even for "small to moderate contributions".

In addition to the obstacles you've listed above, there is a third impediment: paywalls.

There was a time when you could walk into a university library and sit down with the Science Citation Index and do a good job of finding research related to yours. Nowadays, you need a faculty or student university ID to do such a search and retrieve the papers you need. Without an ID at a good university, our amateur, hobbyist, or science buff will hit paywall after paywall. Amateurs might have to pay half a day's wages or more for the pdf of a single paper!

Paywalls are not only a major obstacle for amateurs---they discourage professionals in the third world, and they shut out young people who are beginning their careers outside of university.

Consider Jack Andraka's story, here: http://blogs.plos.org/thestudentblog/2013/02/18/why-science-journal-paywalls-have-to-go/

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  • $\begingroup$ The UMCP library website visitor section says "Databases: On campus, anyone can access the databases without restriction." lib.umd.edu/about/visitors $\endgroup$
    – DavePhD
    Jan 19, 2015 at 13:40
  • $\begingroup$ Nice to know for amateurs in Maryland. It also says that "Off campus, only currently registered UMD students and currently employed faculty and staff can access the site-licensed databases." $\endgroup$ Jan 19, 2015 at 13:49
  • $\begingroup$ I think the libraries that are part of the federal depository library system have to allow public access, so there should be similar access throughout out the USA, I just picked that one because of your location $\endgroup$
    – DavePhD
    Jan 19, 2015 at 13:54
  • $\begingroup$ "Anyone can visit a Federal depository library and will have access to all collections for free" gpo.gov/libraries/… $\endgroup$
    – DavePhD
    Jan 19, 2015 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ I have to say, though, even with my ID at my school, I still hit plenty of paywalls. $\endgroup$ Jan 19, 2015 at 14:13
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Eric Betzig, one of this year's Nobel laureates in chemistry, did much of the work for which he won the prize (superresolved fluorescence microscopy) in his living room .

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    $\begingroup$ He does have a PhD in physics, and OP seems to be saying not even a bachleor's degree $\endgroup$
    – DavePhD
    Jan 17, 2015 at 2:12
  • $\begingroup$ If he did the work on his own time and not as part of an institution, then wouldn't that mean he is an amateur? But not a "rank" amateur. $\endgroup$
    – iad22agp
    Jan 17, 2015 at 3:17
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    $\begingroup$ I would consider someone who got at BA from Caltech, PhD from Cornell, then worked for Bell Labs, then was a VP of R & D, and then worked in the living room of his colleague from Bell Labs to be self employed, definitely not an amateur. $\endgroup$
    – DavePhD
    Jan 17, 2015 at 3:30
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Back in the early days of chemistry, it was all done by "amateurs". And, as far as what costly equipment is needed--go back and look at an old pre 1900 textbook like Fownes' -- it is amazing how much chemistry they got right without NMR, IR, MS, HPLC, GC, etc.

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I'm a mathematician by training, and I think math is a decent analogy to your question. The answer is that yes, amateurs could certainly produce new insights, but this rather low probability. The reason is that humanity has been applying the scientific method to all sciences for a long time, resulting in many new results. But this also means that the "low hanging fruit" in all sciences have been heavily picked. It's simply the case that most of the remaining problems are hard in any scientific discipline. You may still be able to find some non-researched problem, but this is increasingly unlikely. And if it is non-researched, it is likely very hard. So this does not rule out amateurs, but it does set a high bar.

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  • $\begingroup$ With experimental chemistry, simple the financial constraints of running a lab can be a serious issue. Math is not an experimental science, and you don't need a lab, only paper and pencil, literally. $\endgroup$
    – Greg
    Jan 17, 2015 at 16:17
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What about the Mpemba effect? Does that count as chemistry? Maybe it's more physics or chemical engineering.

Erasto Mpemba fits the definition of a total amateur. He was in high school back then.

OTOH, 1963 was half a century ago now.

At least in Chemical Engineering, a fair bit of innovation happens still by amateurs. Ok, not total amateurs, but plant operators, entrepreneurs, businessman, scrap dealer, contractors, foreman, et cetra. i.e. someone outside the conventional BS-MS-PhD academic system.

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